More Christmas movie magic: CDN’s Top Five holiday hits

In our previous article, we gave you the first half of our CDN Top Ten picks for the best Christmas films ever. Now for the final five.

You better watch out... for this Santa! You can see him in the Finnish Christmas film, "Rare Exports." This still is from the film's trailer.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25, 2015 – In our previous article, we offered our fifth to 10th selections for the best Christmas films ever. Here’s our Final Five, the five best Christmas films, 2015 edition. Our list is roughly the same as last year’s, but we’ve decided to move 2014’s surprise runner-up into our top slot.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

The best part of this unabashedly Christmas shopping-friendly film is Edmund Gwenn’s incredibly believable turn as Kris Kringle, the old dude who claims he really is Santa Claus as he dons his suit at Macy’s flagship store in midtown Manhattan. By the end of the film, Gwenn makes you wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all. If so, it’s surely he. Or today, perhaps, his ghost.

Here’s a key clip from the (not very perfectly) colorized edition of this originally black and white film.

4. “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Our Top 10 list thus far has been admittedly U.S.-centric. Let’s take a detour now to mid-19th century London to explore a key British contribution to the celluloid Christmas landscape.

Read also: Christmas movie magic: Ten films to savor this holiday season

The 1951 British film version of Charles Dickens’ timeless short novel “A Christmas Carol,” starring veteran English thespian Alastair Sim as that old skinflint, Uncle Scrooge, comes closest, we think, to Dickens’ original sentimental tear-jerker. The original book is actually quite dark, with an atmosphere reminiscent of the Grimm Brothers’ un-Disneyfied fairy tales. Perhaps Dickens’ famous tale was yet another look back upon his own, miserable, poverty-stricken childhood. If so, this film reflects it better than most.

For all its obvious sentimentality, this black and white film not only captures Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas miracle but also refuses to flinch from that darker side of Dickens’ Victorian London.

There have been many, many film versions of Dickens’ famous Christmas tale over the years. But this one is distinguished by Sim’s nasty, scowling visage, which persists unbroken nearly until the film’s final scene. It’s the one to watch if you prefer your Victorian squalor reasonably grimy and accurate.

Scrooge’s London here is as relentlessly pinched and unpleasant as that ultimate penny-pincher himself, reflecting Dickens’ brooding, lifetime bitterness toward the indolent upper classes−actually the long-ago analogue to today’s privileged 1 percenters.

Dickens’ seemingly contrived happy ending does have an almost redemptive feeling near the end of this film, even for those miserly rich, as personified by Scrooge. In a surprisingly Christian spirit, Scrooge proves that you can ask for forgiveness and try to put your life on a brighter, more upright and moral path, perhaps leading to real salvation before it’s too late, before the Ghost of Christmas That Is Yet To Come stands before you.

That’s the lesson Scrooge learns from the spirits that torment and educate him: a life-lesson that motivates him to deploy his great wealth to rescue others laid low by tragedy, sorrow and pain, much as Jesus himself might have urged him to do. It’s this Christian message that drives Dickens’ otherwise secular tale.

But let’s end this discussion on a positive note. Here’s the once sour-faced Ebenezer Scrooge just moments after he’s discovered the real secret of the Christmas miracle.

3. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

We could go on and on about this wonderful film. But we encourage you to peruse our colleague John Haydon’s entertaining and informative article on the topic.

Read also: Capra Christmas Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Why we love it

Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed.
Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are about to get a very wet surprise. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed dance dangerously close to the concealed swimming pool. (“It’s a Wonderful Life” film still, public domain.)

This film’s all-American optimism in the face of disaster and temptation, its good-heartedness in opposition to instinctive greed, and its surprising grittiness—a balance against too much sentimentality—combine to make “Wonderful Life” a contender in any Top Five or Top 10 Christmas film list. In a way, it’s almost like an American “Christmas Carol.” Except that the evil banker never learns a thing about Christian charity.

Trivia buffs: as depicted in the adjacent and somewhat fuzzy still, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing on top of a swimming pool cover that is soon to be surreptitiously opened by a dastardly young man who’s a rival for Donna’s hand. Who is that nasty guy?

Before we give you the answer, why not take a look at the closing moments of this uplifting film to ponder the meaning of it all. But be sure you view the clip before you peek at the answer to our mini-quiz.

Now the film’s finale:

Our mystery villain/prankster? You mean the last time you viewed this classic film, you didn’t recognize Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, former chief crooner and heartthrob in many “Little Rascals” shorts in the 1930s? Switzer met an untimely end just a few years after this film was made, when he was fatally shot in a still-murky altercation.

2. “A Christmas Story” (1983)

“A Christmas Story” is based on a number of short and semi-biographical works of fiction by writer Jean Shepherd. Its script and some of its dialogue are primarily derived from Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” Set in 1940s Indiana but with sets that look very 1950s (except for the cars), it’s a surprisingly accurate (and very funny) depiction of the Way We Were back in the day. That’s a big part of its enduring charm.

Famous Leg Lamp.
The best “major prize” ever: “Christmas Story’s” famous leg lamp. Buy one for your own living room, via the Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, where we found this image.

The film was shot in a variety of locations. The famous Parker family house and select outdoor environs were filmed in the funky, arty, ethnic West Side Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont. This was a working class ‘hood in the ‘40s and ‘50s that’s is rather trendy in 2015 Cleveland, another formerly major U.S. city that became collateral damage due to the crony economics of a Democrat-led political machine.

Although it’s not obvious in the film, many of the houses in this film’s Cleveland scenes are perched precariously on the cliff-edge of the city’s still quite-industrialized Cuyahoga Valley.

BTW, the “Christmas Story” house itself is now a museum where you can acquire your very own leg lamp. You can add this one to your itinerary the next time you’re in town visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Some scenes in the film, including those at the school and in the schoolyard, were actually filmed farther north in St. Catherine, Ontario, a province that for years has proved a low-cost mecca for strapped film producers looking to save a buck. The rest of this film’s scenes, including house interiors, were filmed on a soundstage.

As the film opens, we’re introduced to the Parker family, all of whom are completely normal and totally eccentric at the same time. Our young hero, the bespectacled Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) resides with his dad (Darren McGavin in perhaps the finest role of his life), his mom (Melinda Dillon) and his pain-in-the-tush kid brother, Randy.

Christmas Story House.
The “Christmas Story” house in Cleveland, Ohio, as pictured in the film. Via the “Christmas Story House and Museum” website.

Ralphie’s fondest Christmas wish is for Santa to bring him a fabulous Red Ryder B.B. gun. Despite the lack of sanctimonious Second Amendment opponents in this era, Mom steps up to the plate to take their place instead as the plot thickens and as Ralphie’s hopes begin to fade. She’s opposed to the gun for the usual 1940s-1950s mom reason, namely that Ralphie’s likely to find a way to “put out his eye”− something this intrepid reviewer actually came close to doing back in the early 1960s via a different model of B.B. gun.

Key scenes in this film have become cult classics, including the Old Man’s grouchy behavior, particularly as he confronts the family’s ancient, balky furnace; Ralphie’s frequent, exciting, but imaginary adventures, precursors in a way to “Calvin and Hobbs”; double- and triple-dog dares, including that always-disastrous tongue-on-the-frozen-flagpole trick; and, finally, that fantastic, world-famous leg lamp (pictured at top) dad receives as a “major” top sales prize.

We tried to find a good clip from the film. But all the short YouTube videos are festooned with dull, opportunistic ads and watermarks that obscure the footage. Rather than annoy you with these, here’s a clip of people visiting the “Christmas Story” house in Cleveland. It’s now an enormously popular museum with a gift shop across the street where you can pick up leg lamps in all shapes and sizes. As for the film, it’s been easy to find for years on cable and via streaming video or DVD.

1. “Rare Exports” (2010)

We discovered this Finnish film on Netflix at Christmastime in 2012 as we surfed for random Christmas downloads. We were absolutely blown away by its originality and dark hilarity. It’s completely, utterly different from anything else on our list and resembles no other Christmas-themed film you might ever chance to see, including that nasty, 1984 mad slasher classic, “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Which is why we’ve moved it to Number One on our 2015 list.

“Rare Exports” is gloomy and spooky, the antithesis of our favorite American classic Christmas films, reflecting in many ways the peculiarly introspective and somber inscapes characteristic of Finnish films. But this one is amply redeemed as a modern holiday classic. Its self-deprecating humor, sly innuendo, political reference points and outright hilarious satire on crass Christmas commercialism are likely to make this one unique in the annals of Christmas films for decades to come.

This Aki Kaurismaki-directed film is brightened considerably by the presence of its weird, gawky, highly intelligent young hero, an 8-year-old named Pietari Kontio. He and his widowed dad Rauno live somewhere in Finland’s frigid northern region close to that country’s still dicey border with Russia.

Pietari and a young friend discover a substantial, American-led drilling operation nearby and decide to investigate. It looks like those rapacious Yanks are tunneling into a large hill resembling an ancient, indigenous burial mound.

Not long after this excursion, kids start to disappear from Pietari’s remote town. Strange talismans resembling voodoo dolls are left in their stead. Making matters worse, the village reindeer herd—the town’s main source of protein during its harsh winters—is also being slaughtered and devoured by… something.

We’re being let in on a peculiarly Finnish version of the Father Christmas legend. The Santa(s) we encounter here proves the very antithesis of either Old St. Nick or the American Santa Claus.

But never fear. Exercising the Finnish version of their Second Amendment rights, Pietari, his dad and the villagers start packing iron as they confront the truth about Santa−with unexpectedly scary and unexpectedly funny results.

We won’t give the rest away. No spoilers here.

This haunting, weird, beautiful, occasionally gory film offers an exotic combination of terror and laughter all strung together by a surprisingly compelling mystery plot. A few short scenes might be a little rough for little tykes. And, since you’ll need to read the subtitles for most of the film, young kids might not be able to follow the plot. But in the main, this is an easy, just-short-of-PG13 film the whole family can actually enjoy together and one that boys Pietari’s age and a bit older will seriously get into. No, they will love it.

Last time we checked, this terrific film was available via streaming video on Netflix, but you can also find DVDs if you look around. Meanwhile, check out the trailer below.

That wraps up our 2015 Top 10 list of Christmas movie classics. Let’s stay in touch with the real Christmas spirit by watching at least one of these wonderful films on Christmas Day.

Also, be sure to contribute your own selections in our Comments section below. Merry Christmas to all. And to all a good night.

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